Meet Chrissie Michaels

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Chrissie Michaels, author of Castle Hill Rebellion, part of the My Australian Story series, answers some questions about her book. We thank her and Scholastic for this interview.

What inspired you to choose the Castle Hill Rebellion as the focus of a My Australian Story novel?

While doing research for Convict Girl, my previous novel in the series, I came across quite a few references to a politicised Irish convict presence in the colony, which made me curious to look deeper. When I came across Joseph Holt’s rather romanticised memoir, I decided to explore the significance of the Castle Hill Rebellion as part of Australia’s historical and political landscape. Plus I have a long line of Irish ancestry in my background. In fact my DNA says I am 96% Irish, so it would be nice to think that above all else my genes were calling me to write this story!

Joe and his fellow convict friend Pat are around 12 years old, and Kitt, who is 15, was born to her convict mother during transportation to Australia. How many children travelled the long journey from Ireland? Was it common for children as young as 12 to be transported?

The age given on records is usually the only way we can tell if a convict was a child. However, the lists for the Irish transport ships were often sketchy, omitting the age and time of servitude for those sent. What we do know is that young children were tried in court like adults and during Australia’s years as a penal colony some of these child offenders were transported as convicts. For example, John Hudson was sentenced at the age of nine, kept on a prison hulk for three years and then transported as a felon. He spoke only 13 words at his trial. No-one defended him. Mary Wade was sent out as a young girl for stealing clothes. One of her descendants (Kevin Rudd) became a Prime Minister of Australia. On rare occasions convicts were allowed to bring one or more of their children with them. The exiled rebel General Joseph Holt, who features in Castle Hill Rebellion had money and influence, so he was able to bring his wife and son Joshua. Another son was born during the sea voyage. Children born to convicts during this long journey were considered free born.

The story of the Castle Hill rebellion is told through the eyes of Joe, a convict boy who has been bonded as shepherd boy, and who lives alone in the shepherd’s hut on one of Paymaster Cox’s farms. How often were convicts trusted with jobs such as this?

The officers of the NSW Corps, like Paymaster Cox, were rapacious during this period at acquiring, money, farms and stock. They were much less interested in supervising their assigned workers. However, the hand of authority was never far away and there was little chance of a convict escaping permanently. There were regular musters, constables roamed the surrounds, while overseers and stewards kept an eye on the management of workers and productivity. Many of these supervisory duties were carried out by convicts or emancipists.

What can young readers learn from this episode of history that relates to their lives today?

The rebellion at Castle Hill raises universal themes of fairness, justice and freedom, and what constitutes a better world. The waves of prisoners sent out because of political unrest in Ireland and the subsequent uprising in March 1804 provide a valuable insight into what makes an action political and how the colonial environment changed as a result. Loyalty and belonging are double-edged swords in the story. The characters, especially Joe, learn to cope with their own emotional reactions to experiences such as isolation and feelings of difference. I guess with the world as it is today, the idea of radicalisation was equally uppermost in my mind–for Joe, it is the devastating seriousness of being groomed or recruited into doing something that makes him feel utter terror and confusion inside, and which has such catastrophic and far-reaching consequences.

I tried to look at the nature of friendship–you know, having caring friends, the value of friendship and of kinship. The story explores positive moral values, such as honesty, trustworthiness and integrity. There are acts of friendship and compassion. Yet Joe finds himself in situations where it is sometimes difficult for him to be true to his own feelings, or downright honest or trustworthy. I hope the story leads to a better understanding that even if you have a bad start, make a mistake, or a make a poor decision, you can always try to turn things around by drawing on your own inner strength and the support of others. Lots of life lessons, I hope, without sounding too preachy.

Thanks Chrissie for sharing those insights.

Read Kay Oddone’s review of Castle Hill Rebellion

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